As a manager, I’ve often wanted to try something that Ben Horowitz wrote about in this week’s featured book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Actually, I want to try everything that he did but I’ll stick to one example for today. In two previous articles, I wrote about the struggles that a leader faces in trying to make their team and their endeavor a success. So much of the challenge comes from the outside, from the world’s apathy to the serious risk of failure that the competitive landscape presents. There are many challenges that come from the inside, too. Especially when a startup starts growing into a larger-sized team with divisions, departments, and silos.
When this upscaling starts to happen, a leader has to start fighting more of the war on two fronts—internal and external. This is where the real fun begins. This is where a leader’s mettle is truly tested.
Some leaders are great at tackling external problems (lagging sales, ineffective marketing, strong competition). Some leaders are great at addressing internal problems (group infighting, bureaucracy, tension over values, blame games). Few are great at both and this so incredibly unfortunate because while one set of problems is deeply difficult, the other is relatively easy.
More specifically, the external problems one has to solve to make the business a success are very difficult. The internal problems to making a business operate as a healthy, supportive, high-functioning team are easy.
For the leader, anyway.
All it takes is a bit of healthy, regular disruption. Or, as Horowitz described it, all that’s needed is a Freaky Friday.
As a brief aside, I remember growing up in the rural South and being subjected to some old-fashioned parenting that turned out to be pretty wise. My brother and I fought regularly. Sometimes over a toy. Or what to watch on television. Or over my desire to be left alone and his desire to not let me. Typical sibling stuff, right? Anyway, there was this one time where we’d been fighting and arguing all day long and my grandmother got tired of it. So she did something really smart.
She sat us down, my brother and I, in a quiet room with a loveseat. The funny thing about a loveseat is that it only has two cushions. Which means you can’t really have a lot of distance from the other person sitting there. I suppose this is what sparks the “love” once you and the other person take a “seat”.
She sat us down at the height of our furies, red-faced and righteous, and she actually made us hold hands. Me and my brother. We said no, we didn’t want to do it. We never wanted to be near each other ever again. And we definitely didn’t want to ever touch the other person’s hand.
My grandmother insisted. We did as we were told. We held hands, sitting next to one another, full of faux-hate. The next thirty seconds felt like four hundred hours. It was painful.
Not because I was holding hands with someone I intensely disliked. No, it was painful because this was my brother, someone I loved, and the exercise was a near-mechanical release of our personal floodgates. Our grandmother had forced us into a very sudden, very novel, very indirect experience. She made a situation where we couldn’t help but expose our flanks. Me actually sitting next to my brother, holding his hand, meant that I couldn’t assume the same old postures and positions (head-on, direct, and angry) that were familiar to me. It meant I couldn’t treat him as some two-dimensional obstacle. He was a person. He was warm but clammy, small, and nervous. He was suddenly like me. In some ways, he was me.
Again, this sounds nice but it was painful. All the noxious anger that we both felt, due to old habits and dumb baggage, left us both very quickly. There is something very deflating about that. Pride crumbles, tempers soften, and bygones are made into bygones. When that happens fast, it hurts. And it makes you empty. When all that goes out, there’s nothing left inside you. But with his hand in mine, we both filled that emptiness with, well, brotherhood. We suddenly became brothers again. Kids. I’ll never forget it.
For those who haven’t seen the movie Freaky Friday, the premise is great. A mother and her teenage daughter struggle to get along. Both have competing desires, expectations, and rightful needs that constantly clash. Both feel like the other doesn’t understand them, doesn’t appreciate what they’re going through. At one point, after a regular round of arguments, the two end their evenings by going to their respective beds, laying their heads on their pillows, and making a wish before going to sleep: I wish my <mom><daughter> could live MY life for a day. Then she’d understand!
Overnight, the wish is granted. The two wake up the next morning in the other person’s body. The daughter is somehow in her mother’s body, living her life, and vice versa. They then spend the next few days living the other person’s experience and all the previous anger and frustration is quickly eroded with new understanding, empathy, respect, and love.
It’s the whole walk-in-my-shoes proverb writ large on the screen. It makes for a great movie. There are a couple versions and they’re both good.
The author of our feature book was once the CEO of a public company. And if you’ve read this far, I may need to remind you (and me) that today’s article is part of a larger study of management and business strategy. So what, pray tell, does my little foray into sibling rivalry and classic family movies have to do with all that?
It starts with the typical internal struggle that a growing company will face as it gains size, develops specialized teams, matures with tenure amongst staff, and creates the natural tension that comes between groups as they try to solve shared problems. In Horowitz’s case, this common problem started to grow into a really corrosive situation between the Customer Support and Sales Engineering teams. It could have been the Sharks and the Jets. Or the Hatfields and McCoys. Or any other two groups that have different identities, limited resources, and shared problems.
The usual toolkit of solutions didn’t apply in this situation. There was a legitimate stalemate here. No bad operators, no bozos, no weak team that could be subordinated to the stronger team. It was legit trench warfare.
And clearly, it occupied our author’s mind. I know the feeling. Problems like these sort of stay in the back of a manager’s working memory, running as a lightweight process in the Task Manager vof our skull, until something (an idea, a case study, another complaint) refreshes the whole thing and snaps it back to the forefront. In his case, this happened while watching the movie Freaky Friday. The solution to this long-running problem was right there. As he writes:
The very next day I informed the head of Sales Engineering and the head of Customer Support that they would be switching jobs. I explained that, like Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris, they would keep their minds, but get new bodies. Permanently.
That last part reminded me of my reaction when my grandmother showed my brother and I the loveseat we would share. More from our author:
Their initial reactions were not unlike the remake where Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis both scream in horror. However, after just one week walking in the other’s moccasins, both executives quickly diagnosed the core issues causing the conflict.
Solutions quickly followed. The teams got back to working together and forged the strongest bonds in the whole company.
Business literature focuses a lot on external disruption. New products change the entire landscape of everything from the music business to taxi cabs. We’re living it every day. But disruption, as a concept, is of far greater use beyond economic and social change.
Disruption is renewal. It can be applied to team management and organizational development just as surely as it can be applied to technology. Disruption can address bad habits, faulty routines, bureaucracy, and policies within the company—especially large ones. Disruption can prevent the sclerotic settling that otherwise occurs in the system.
I’m not speaking of process improvement, here. Or efficiency. Disruption is eliminating the process altogether. Either replacing it with something else or, again, eliminating it.
I write this as a response to the natural way of things. The organization in every facet is a system and systems seek to expand to whatever size they can reach, then mature, then institutionalize their status quo, and thus close themselves against any future change. This is true to the organization, as a whole, and it is especially true to the components within it. Namely, the divisions and departments. Again, it could be Customer Support and Sales Engineering or it could be Human Resources and Finance. Whatever.
Disruption, then, is obviously necessary so that an organization’s maturation doesn’t lead to senility. One small example here is the “silos” of an organization’s departmentalization. These “silos” are necessary but they must be straddled. Andy Grove explains this with the hybrid organization he championed in our review of his book High Output Management. (review here). The idea is easily misunderstood and so I wrestled with the concept more thoroughly in the article Who’s the Boss? The Ambiguous Organization.
Additionally, disruptive renewal can occur with a steady, programmatic rotation of people in various positions. Want to change a team’s performance? Change the team. Not wholesale. Partially. This is what makes internal change easy, I think. A regular, programmatic, deliberate, and constructive practice of switching team jerseys makes fantastic sense in my experience.
As an extreme example, consider DARPA. This is an absolutely fascinating organization. To briefly explain how this idea applies to them, I’ll borrow a quote from Richard Rumelt, author of my favorite book on business strategy: Good Strategy, Bad Strategy. It was my first ever book review. You can find it here.
Here’s how Rumelt describes DARPA’s practice for regular, disruptive renewal:
DARPA retains program managers for only four to six years to limit empire building and to bring in fresh talent. The expectation is that a new program manager will be willing to challenge the ideas and work of predecessors.
Straightforward enough, right? Notice the emphasis here on fresh talent. I think, in the context of our article here, that means fresh perspective. And the use of this practice to defend against empire building is just brilliant. I’ve seen the empire building far too often in more mature companies. CNN wrote a great article on this practice and the rest of what DARPA does. I highly recommend it.
Then there’s the massive Chinese telecom giant Huawei. This company is thriving in a time of tremendous change. One reason, they posit, is that they rotated three executives as CEO every six months for quite some time. This prevented key-man problems and has created a broader system for the company’s decision-making that relies less on some cult of personality. The practice appears to be shifting in some subtle ways, rotating chairmen positions rather than CEOs, but it’s still alive.
I could go on and on. I could point out how renewal is perpetuated at Google with their practice of cultivating a bench of staff available to work when needed. I like this approach because something terrible happens when very effective, talented person (a) leave the company, or (b) stay with nothing to do. This is Google’s way of retaining talented people while also still saying to them Don’t just do something. Stand there!
Then there are the phenomenal practices at 3M. That company is really the originator of so many popular ideas we now associate with the aforementioned Google and others. More on their work can be found in this HBR article.
This article has gone from talk of internal culture to sibling rivalry to Freaky Friday to the organizational machinations of a massive Chinese telecom. Why? I suppose it’s to demonstrate the tremendous importance of perpetual, healthy disruption in the workplace. Not firings. Disruption. The healthy kind.
My argument is the internal strife, bad team cultures, and ugly bouts of infighting are the stuff of too-comfortable, too-stable (aka rigid) environments. In some cases, an intervention like Horowitz’s makes perfect sense. Same with my grandmother. But those drastic measures (e.g. loveseats and Freaky Friday) work because the problem has grown to an extreme that the environment must be changed.
To nip such issues in the bud beforehand, a programmatic approach to renewal makes sense to me. Perhaps these team manager should switch roles for one week every quarter? Giving people a chance to switch their team jerseys every once in a while before the trench warfare begins seems both exciting and useful. It helps as a preventative measure, too. This idea can take many forms, as illustrated above. It can work for any group. I think it is a method that is far too powerful to only be used “in case of emergency”.